This guide is designed to provide teachers and students with a clear understanding of what fake news is, how it can harm our society, and how to identify it and respond to it.
FAKE NEWS: A DEFINITION
“False or misleading content presented as news and communicated in formats spanning spoken, written, printed, electronic, and digital communication.”
Nolan Higdon, Media Scholar
Despite popular opinion, the term Fake News has existed for a while. Though it certainly has become something of a buzzword in recent years. Gone are the days when we all get our news exclusively from longstanding newspapers and a handful of television channels.
The power of broadcasting information is now in everyone’s hands, thanks to social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.
While this has greatly ‘democratized’ the sharing of information, it has also thrown up some authentic problems that we must help our students to navigate, for example:
- How can I spot fake news from actual news?
- How do I know if a source of information is credible?
- What is ‘clickbait’, and how can I recognize it?
- What is propaganda, and how can I identify it?
The first step to spotting fake news is to define clearly what is meant by the term itself. Unfortunately, this has been made all the more difficult as ‘fake news’ has become a convenient slur used by one side to cast doubt on the claims of their political opponents.
The skill of how to spot fake news has rapidly evolved from an academic skill to a life skill.
TYPES OF FAKE NEWS
To begin the process of spotting fake news, students need to understand there are three main types to recognize:
- False Stories: Though these stories may dress in the clothes of news, they are entirely fabricated. They are usually invented to sell a particular product, entice the reader to visit a specific website, or even simply mislead the reader into believing something false.
- Half-Truths: These are usually much more difficult to spot as they contain elements of truth mixed among falsehoods and misrepresentations. For example, a journalist might quote a source accurately but deliberately neglect to provide important context to what was said.
- Clickbait: The purpose of clickbait is solely to get readers to click a link. Misleading headlines are often used that don’t accurately reflect the content of the article itself. The clicks create ad revenue for the site owner. Clickbait is usually easy enough to recognize due to its overreliance on sensationalism to gain the reader’s attention.
Regardless of the type, fake news will always mimic the appearance of news but will lack the verifiable facts, credible sources, and objectivity that is the mark of real news.
In the face of such convincing fraud, our students will need to be trained to evaluate news sources to accurately distinguish the reliable and the fair-minded from the phony and one-sided.
In the remainder of this article, we’ll examine six practical strategies to help students do just that. We’ll also look at several online tools that students can use to assist them in their fake news detection efforts.
SIX STEPS TO SPOT FAKE NEWS
1. DEVELOP A CRITICAL MINDSET
The first and most important aspect of learning how to spot fake news is developing a critical mindset.
This active skill requires students to engage their rational and reflective minds every time they read or hear something. To do this, they must ask questions – and lots of them!
Students will initially need to consciously ask questions about the things they see or hear. With practice, however, they will instinctively rigorously question the messages they are exposed to.
To help students turn critical thinking into a habit, they’ll first need to develop a systematic approach. Encourage your students to ask the following questions when they encounter a new source (you may even like to make a display of these questions for your classroom):
- Who said it?
- What did they say?
- Where did they say it?
- When did they say it?
- Why did they say it?
- How did they say it?
Each of these questions provides a good starting point that will offer students an opportunity to dig deeper into the integrity of a source and ask further follow-up questions.
2. CHECK THE SOURCE/PUBLISHER
Whether the student wishes to check the site an article is hosted on or a site linked to as a supporting source, the following method applies.
First, the student should look at the URL address and who owns it.
Is the website from a reputable organization or an established institution?
One way to help assess this is to look at the domain suffix (the last part of the web address), as not all domain suffixes are created equal.
For example, the popular .com ending usually denotes a commercial site. While this does not automatically mean the information the site contains is unreliable, it is helpful to know the site’s primary purpose is to sell goods or services when weighing up the reliability of the information.
On the other hand, the domain ending .edu are used by educational institutions. Again, this doesn’t guarantee the reliability of the content, but it can be a starting point for further investigation. Students should dig deeper. If the source is from a research center at an educational institution, for example, the student is most likely dealing with a reliable source.
Encourage vigilance, though. Sometimes students can host blogs on institutional websites. These personal blogs frequently contain opinion-based information that isn’t necessarily subject to the rigorous peer review process that research generally undergoes.
To learn more about the institution that owns the website, students should look at the About Us tab and related tabs such as Our Mission, Aims, Vision, etc. This may give some helpful information on which students can base their evaluation.
Two other important domain suffixes for students to recognize are .gov and .org.
.gov websites are official government sources, while .org used to be exclusively for non-profit organizations. However, sometimes such organizations are sponsored by commercial entities.
Once the students have had a good look at the site publisher, they should investigate the author.
Who are they? What are their credentials in this area?
A simple online search of an author’s name often turns up lots of useful information helpful for students evaluating their value as a source.
3. CROSS-REFERENCE WITH OTHER SOURCES
Another way to gauge the validity of a news story from a particular source is to cross-reference it with other, trusted sources.
For example, can the student find the same story reported by respected global news companies?
If the only place the story appears is on a dubious website with clear commercial or political ends, then the account is much more likely to be fake news.
Carefully listening to or reading a news story can often reveal opportunities to check the story out.
For example, if an oil spill is reported off the coast, what are local media outlets saying about what happened?
When news is reliable, it will most likely be possible to confirm it through several other reputable news sources.
4. GATHER THE EVIDENCE
Cross-referencing stories with other news reports isn’t the only way to find evidence of validity. Usually, the news will contain other specific types of evidence that can be checked individually.
Can other sources be found to confirm the interviews and quotes in the story? Is there video or audio footage, for example?
Students should seek out supporting (or contradictory) sources and weigh up the news report in light of what they uncover.
How about surveys and statistics? Do the numbers confirm what has been reported?
Here, students need to be careful too. The careful selection of numbers can be used to prove almost anything! As a British statesman once said, “There are three kinds of falsehoods, lies, damn lies, and statistics!”
5. CHECK IT’S CURRENT
We live in the age of the 24-hour news cycle. Unlike a bygone era, when printing and broadcast schedules allowed for time to edit, fact-check, and amend news before publishing, news can reach a global audience instantly at the push of a button.
On the flip side, whereas TV broadcasts and daily newspapers are somewhat disposable, news articles published online can remain out there in the virtual world permanently.
Often, they are published and forgotten about. Though new facts may subsequently come to light, these articles aren’t updated. To ensure students are up-to-date with the news, they should always check the date the article was published. The date of publication is often printed just under the article’s title.
With the widespread use of social media, old news articles are frequently reposted and reshared, often without explicitly stating the news is ‘old’ or has been updated since the original publication.
In these instances, the onus is on the student to check when the article was initially published and if the story has been modified or updated since that original publication.
6. ASK THE EXPERTS
Another approach to spotting fake news is outsourcing it to experts in the field. These experts can come in many different forms. For example, professors, librarians, researchers, scientists, and journalists can all represent authoritative voices in specific areas.
In recent years, many fact-checking websites have also popped up. These websites present themselves as impartial arbiters of factual accuracy and objectivity, usually employing a rating system to evaluate stories of the day that are doing the rounds.
As with any of the strategies outlined in this article, the ‘ask the experts’ strategy is far from perfect. While every fact-checking website presents itself as completely unbiased and objective, they do not always get things right.
Detecting bias can be a subjective pursuit that can sometimes say as much about the checker’s bias as it does about the checked. Students will still need to cast a critical eye over the material and keep their critical faculties engaged.
ONLINE FACT-CHECKING TOOLS FOR STUDENTS
Here are a few of the best known fact-checking websites that students can use:
Media Bias/Fact Check This website contains a database of over 3,700 media sources it rates according to a variety of criteria, including bias, political leaning, and an assessment of it tendency for factual reporting.
Hoaxy Run by Indiana University Bloomington, Hoaxy aims to track the spread of misinformation online by tracking the sharing of articles from low-credibility sources on social media.
Snopes Originally started as a website devoted to debunking urban myths, Snopes now also focuses on American politics and has a left-of-centre political leaning itself.
FactCheck.org This website fact-checks statements made by major political figures (predominately US). It is run by the nonprofit Annenberg Public Policy Center.
Fake News Examples for Students
The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus is an excellent resource for students to be exposed to prior to exploring fake news. It is a carefully crafted site about the extremely rare “Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus” and what we can all do to save it from extinction before it’s too late. Most students will easily fall for this trap, and it is a great conversation starter.
theonion.com is an excellent example of a parody media platform and has fresh content added daily. It is both clever, witty, and at times, completely and deliberately misleading. Some of the content can sometimes sit on the edge of risque, so pick your audience when using it.
Here is a list of hundreds of fake news sites broken into various categories. Please take the time to explore these yourself before freely sharing them with students, as they obviously contain misleading and commonly inappropriate information in saying that you will easily find numerous examples of current fake news in action here.
In a world where social media platforms enable anyone to publish their thoughts and opinions to the world, it has never been more important for our students to develop the media literacy skills required to sift the factual from the false.
Unfortunately, the speed with which these new technologies have developed has outstripped our ability to critically assess what we see on these platforms. We are playing catch-up.
As most of our students are daily users of social media, opportunities to put their fake news detection skills to practice won’t be difficult to come by.
A good starting point for internalizing the above strategies is to tell your students that from now on, before sharing any material online, they should check each and every source thoroughly to make sure it is true. Disturbingly, 6 out of 10 happily share articles online that they haven’t read themselves. If everyone did a little fact-checking before sharing, no fake news would ever go viral.
One of the most challenging aspects of teaching fake news detection skills to our students is that it requires legwork. Separating fact from fake with precision takes effort. Remind students that it is worth the effort. Uncovering the truth is rewarding and helps make the world a better place. Not to mention no one likes to be duped or used by others for nefarious ends.
With time and practice, the strategies above will become second nature as students develop an instinct for identifying the misleading and the downright fraudulent.
However, students should also learn that they don’t need to make snap judgements on what they think about a source. They should be encouraged to habitually suspend their judgement until they’ve had a chance to examine the evidence. They must develop a negative capability to deal with uncertainty until they’ve had a chance to evaluate sources adequately.
Finally, it should be impressed upon the students that while the above strategies are all very useful in their own right, they aren’t foolproof. The best chance for students to accurately identify fake news is to use these different strategies in conjunction with each other and by constantly applying their own judgement.
The content for this page has been written by Shane Mac Donnchaidh. A former principal of an international school and English university lecturer with 15 years of teaching and administration experience. Shane’s latest Book, The Complete Guide to Nonfiction Writing, can be found here. Editing and support for this article have been provided by the literacyideas team.